Varanasi: A Visit to the Cultural Capital of India

Morning activities on the ghats, Varanasi

‘The cultural heart of India’… or ‘the melting pot of Indian culture’ … or ‘the holy city of India’ – whatever you like to call it, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, Varanasi has its own charm to attract travelers from all across the globe. Glimpses of Benares in Satyajit Ray movies have always made me curious about the city. As I read Aldous Huxley’s ‘Benares’ …all those description of boats in the river, the ghats and Hindu rituals during solar eclipse ignited my inquisitiveness further.

Varanasi, Ganges, Ghats, Banaras, Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Incredible Benares

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the old city of Varanasi (Banaras) and would like to share my experience there. It was a family tour with my mother, aunt and my sisters.

Getting There

On 19th February we boarded the Howrah-Mumbai Mail at 10pm. Courtesy Kolkata’s typical rallies and meetings, all the roads to Howrah were blocked and we were stranded in traffic jam for 2hrs. Thankfully, it was our destiny that we reached the station literally at the last minute when the guard was about to wave the flag and finally managed to get on board.

The train reached Mughalsarai Junction next morning right in time. We opted for pickup service (Rs 600) provided by the hotel. A white Ambassador was waiting outside to take us to the guest house. We took the GT Road (or NH2). It was a journey of about an hour from Mughalsarai station to Godowlia Crossing, in the heart of Varanasi. However, there are plenty of auto rickshaws and trekkers outside the station that are much cheaper mode of transportation.

Ghats, Ganges, Varanasi, Banaras, Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Ganges – view from our guest house in Varanasi

First Day:

As you know, the narrow alleys are one of the city’s specialties… we had to get down on the main road and walk down the alley to reach our guest house.

Sita Guest House on Chowsatti Ghat is really a good place to stay in Varanasi if you want to enjoy the view of the Ganges in the quiet and privacy of your room. Rooms are neat and clean and the price is quite reasonable with respect to its location, facilities and service compared to other hotels/guest houses located near the always crowded Dasaswamedh Ghat (known as the main Ghat of Varanasi). Sita Guest House also has a rooftop restaurant which was another reason for me to choose this place.

Ganges, Assi Ghat, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Views from the guest house window

Godowlia Crossing, the main commercial hub of the city was 10-minute walk from our hotel. After a refreshing hot and cold water bath in the guest house we set out to explore the city market. I believe the market is a place in every city or town that gives you an essence of the city at once.

One thing I must mention that if you want a good meal outside the hotel you are staying, go for Kesari Restaurant, which is a popular eatery serving a variety of cuisines starting from Punjabi to South Indian. The restaurant is situated on the left of the road towards Dasaswamedh Ghat from the crossing.

After lunch our next destination was the famous Dasaswamedh Ghat. I wasn’t surprise to find the ‘sacred’ ghat so dirty. It was an over-crowded place where it seemed the whole city population swarmed in.

Dasaswamedh Ghat, Ganges, Varanasi, Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Dasaswamedh Ghat

The best thing about Varanasi is I think the boat ride in the Ganges…

Boat ride Varanasi, Ghats, Uttar Pradesh
Boat Ride in Varanasi

Since ours was an all-women group we reserved a boat for Rs 500 for one hour private ride. The boatman said he will show us the main 17 ghats and drop us in front of our guest house. Alternatively, you can go for a ride at Rs 70 per head in a group of 15 to 20 people at a time.

As the boat floated along the ghats the boatman went on briefing the history of each ghat including the main Dasaswamedh, Rana Mahal, Assi, Harischandra, Manikarnika and more. He was a captivating story teller, I must admit. I was busy in observing various activities of the devotees and visitors along the ghats while listening to him. From Hindu family performing religious rites to visitors from foreign countries taking pictures to some other species (buffaloes actually … ;)) staring at us while grazing lazily on the bank – it was quite an assortment!

Varanasi, Ghats, Ganges, Banaras, Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Ghats in Varanasi

In the middle of our ride we stopped at Kedar Ghat only to shop banarasi saris… well…you know women! 😉 Not buying a Banarasi Silk sari while in Benares is next to impossible.

Kedar Ghat, Varanasi, Banaras, Ganges, Uttar Pradesh
Kedar Ghat, Varanasi

There are a number of sari shops and silk factories around. Many of the shop owners will claim that they will give you pure Banarasi silk saree at cheaper price…BEWARE! In the market you’ll find many ‘dalals’ (broker) coming up to you and try to convince you to buy from their establishment. Do not listen to them as you may end up with a bad deal in the end. However, we shopped till we dropped… lol… and started back towards the main ghat. The sun was nearing the horizon and the ‘aarti’ was about to begin.

Dusk, Ganges, Ghats, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Dusk falling over the Ganges, Varanasi

It’s a wonderful experience to watch dusk falling over the city and lights coming out one by one along the riverbank. We found the ‘aarti’ already started as we reached the Dasaswamedh Ghat. It was one of a kind experience to watch the ‘aarti’ from the boat. I saw clergymen clad in saffron stood up in a row and chanted hymns together while waving lighted ‘diya’s (indigenous lamp used in religious rites) towards the holy river. The ghat was flooded with the light of bright golden flames… beautiful!

Aarti, Dasaswamedh Ghat, Ganges, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Evening aarti at Dasaswamedh Ghat, Ganges, Varanasi

Slowly we passed the main ghat and headed towards Chowsatti Ghat. The boatman dropped us right in front of our guest house.

My first day in Varanasi was quite eventful.

continued… Part II: Sightseeing in Varanasi